In May last year, I began to publicly speculate that American inaction in, and incoherent policy towards, Syria was largely explicable because “the Obama administration sees the Syria conflict as a subset of the broader problem with Iran”.
American officials were incoherently insisting that President Bashar Al Assad must go, but the institutions of government he presides over must stay.
And then there was the self- defeating and self-fulfilling viewpoint that the United States had “no good options” in Syria in terms of engaging, arming, training and wholeheartedly supporting some elements of the opposition.
This hands-off approach produced – as I and others warned it inevitably would – produced only less appealing alternatives as other forces moved to define the nature of the conflict and the identity and incentive structures of its participants. In the past few months, we have begun to see the fruits of this misguided policy ripening.
In that same article from May, I concluded, “If they really do see Syria as a sideshow in the broader question of whether Iran will have to be confronted or an accommodation can be reached, the inaction might be explicable, but it’s extremely cynical.
“It would mean the people of Syria, and their lives by the scores of thousands, are being treated as pawns in a broader great game.
“If that’s the fundamental explanation for an otherwise bewildering American policy that looks entirely self-defeating, it is both unwise and unworthy of a great country.”
That analysis has since been greatly bolstered by Barack Obama’s threat to attack Syrian chemical weapons facilities, a proactive stance suddenly replaced by a profoundly accommodationist one of making the Assad regime partners in the alleged process of giving up its chemical weapons.
The American administration had set a “red line” which the Syrian regime had crossed on numerous occasions, and once on a large scale.
The response was, in effect, to reward them with enhanced international, and even domestic, legitimacy. The policy now means that the United States endorses, in effect, Syrian regime control over key areas, roads and other infrastructure necessary to transport those weapons to the northeastern ports and out of the country (almost none of which has been actually been done). This is not consistent with a stated policy of regime change in Damascus.
The interim agreement with Iran late last year over its own nuclear programme further heightened the sense that the United States was exploring the prospect of a broader accommodation.
This would involve Iran freezing and rolling back its nuclear activities, but might also acknowledge Iran as a legitimate actor with a tacitly recognised sphere of influence, beginning in Syria.
No one really thinks the United States has embraced such a formula, but anyone who doesn’t suspect that it is toying with one isn’t paying attention to the logical corollaries of evolving US policy, or the remarks of Mr Obama himself, who now speaks openly of a Sunni-Shiite “equilibrium” as a supposedly potential stabilising factor in the Middle East.
When I first began speculating about this almost a year ago, the noted Middle East negotiator and scholar Aaron David Miller, who is also a good friend of mine, took umbrage.
He has been among the most vocal, and certainly intelligent and serious, of those in Washington who have argued that the United States was best guided by not taking a strong stance in Syria.
He bristled at the suggestion that American risk-aversion in Syria was in large part guided by keeping one eye on Iran, and particularly to my description of this as “unworthy”.
In his latest column, It’s Iran, Stupid: The real, unspoken reason America won’t get involved in Syria, Dr Miller essentially embraces and explicates my darkest analysis of the otherwise incomprehensible American policy lacuna towards Syria. He agrees that “by doing nothing, the United States is changing nothing” in Syria, yet he still finds the policy sound.
It’s a legitimate perspective, depending on how you see America’s national interests. But it underestimates the destabilising impact of the conflict regionally, and damage to the US’s standing in the Middle East the policy of deliberately “changing nothing” has produced. It has alienated friends, strengthened enemies and turned the Syrian conflict into a playground for everything that is worst and most anti-American in the region. It’s hardly cost-free, and a strong case can be made that it’s folly.
Dr Miller may be right in describing American (non-) policy in Syria as “amoral but not necessarily immoral”. But with 130,000 people killed, and the use of heavy weapons, poison gas and deliberate starvation against civilians, the line between amorality and immorality perforce becomes blurred, although it’s true enough that the United States must pick its battles carefully.
Now that we agree that the US approach to Syria is in large part driven by hopes of achieving a broader detente with Iran, the biggest difference I have with Dr Miller is this: morality aside, he’s not recognising the powerful long-term costs to American interests and standing in the region the hands-off approach and “equilibrium” fantasy necessarily entail.
Almost a year ago I called this policy “unworthy,” but also “unwise.” As more American policy experts publicly recognise that Syria policy is indeed comprehensible primarily as a subset of Iran policy, I stand, more than ever, by both of those characterisations. It was, and remains, indeed both unworthy and unwise.